Alphabet Historic District
The Alphabet Historic District was listed on the National Register of Historic Places in 2000. Portions of the content on this web page were adapted from a copy of the original nomination document. [†] Adaptation copyright © 2014, The Gombach Group.
The Alphabet Historic District, located in the northwest area of Portland, Oregon, is the birthplace of important local institutions. It was the secondary center of Portland's Jewish and Scandinavian population in the early twentieth century. It was a residential district in which a large number of locally prominent merchants, professionals, civic leaders, and politicians lived. The District is noted for its expression of early residential architecture in the city of Portland, characterized by buildings of various types, styles, and eras. Indeed, the Alphabet Historic District is unique in Portland for its concentration of early twentieth-century, multi-family structures—many of which were designed and constructed by the city's premier architects and developers. The district's multi-family dwellings are noteworthy for their appearance in an area that retains buildings from its early development period. Grand single-family homes sit next to first-class apartment buildings in a physical representation of the socio-cultural transition experienced by one of Portland's oldest neighborhoods.
The irregularly shaped district is roughly bounded by NW Lovejoy Street to the north, with a northern extension to NW Marshall Street; by NW 17th Avenue to the east; by W. Burnside Street to the south; and by NW 24th Avenue to the west. The period of significance begins in 1880, the earliest date of construction for the oldest remaining resources in the district. It ends in 1940 with the beginning of World War II. The war induced a national mobilization effort that included Portland. As a leader in the shipbuilding industry, Portland became a war production center, an identity that significantly affected the city's growth. Consequently, 1940 marks a turning point in the city's and, by extension, the district's history.
The Alphabet Historic District contains a total of six originally platted additions to the city of Portland. The lion's share of the district (about 50%) is located in Couch's addition to the city of Portland, recorded in 1865. As such, the district's development is rightfully attributed to Captain John Heard Couch.
Couch was a successful mariner from Newburyport, Massachusetts. He began his naval career at the tender age of fifteen on a voyage to the West Indies upon the brig Mars. By the age of twenty-eight, Couch was commanding the brig Maryland, which he safely navigated to the mouth of the Columbia River in June 1840. It was the first vessel to enter the Willamette River. Couch returned to the Oregon Territory three more times before finally settling in Oregon City in 1844. There, he began a promising career as a landsman and became director of the publishing company that organized the Spectator, Oregon's first newspaper. Couch was also Oregon's Treasurer under the Provisional Government. He quickly became a popular and respected citizen. It was observed of Couch: "His gentlemanly deportment has won him a host of friends, who esteem him for his high moral worth." A prosperous career in Oregon City seemed certain for Couch, but he had other plans. Capt. John H. Couch
In 1847, Couch traveled back to New England. One year later, he set sail from New York as captain of the brig Madonna. He traveled with George F. Flanders, his brother-in-law, as chief mate. They were journeying to San Francisco and Oregon with a cargo of goods they hoped to sell. Both arrived in San Francisco not a moment too soon. It was July 1849, and the gold rush fever was at its peak. Couch and Flanders were able to sell their goods at a tremendous profit. They continued traveling and reached Oregon in early August.
Once there, Couch decided to relocate to Portland instead of returning to Oregon City. Couch's naval background had convinced him that the area's commercial future would be found at a site north of Oregon City, closer to the confluence of the Willamette and Columbia Rivers. In August 1845, four years earlier, Couch speculated on this premonition by filing a land claim one square mile to the north of the Lovejoy-Pettygrove townsite on the west bank of the Willamette River. Couch's business acumen proved sound. The Lovejoy-Pettygrove townsite eventually became the city of Portland, which soon surpassed Oregon City in prominence. Couch bragged to many of his seafaring friends that Portland was the "head of navigation." Couch's influential decision has since been confirmed by historians: "Captain Couch's vote of confidence in selecting that claim was one of the most important events—some would call it decisive—in the early history of Portland."
In Portland, Couch began a business partnership with Benjamin Stark, part owner of the Portland townsite. With Stark based in San Francisco as a merchant banker, he and Couch established a retail shipping business between their respective cities. Couch and Company Bankers were soon conducting profitable trips between Portland and San Francisco—they were even able to send one brig from Portland to Canton, China.
By 1852, Couch had carved a comfortable financial niche and sent for his wife and three daughters who were still living on the East Coast. Upon their arrival in Portland, they were led to a picturesque cabin in the woods, situated where Union Railroad Station is today. The Couch family eventually lived in much grander residences that would grace the landscape of the future Alphabet Historic District. Before that occurred, though, Couch had to map the lots, blocks, and streets that would form the blueprint for one of Portland's most elite neighborhoods.
In 1865, Couch platted his first subdivision. It included the area between what are now Ankeny and Kearney Streets. On the plat Couch filed, the streets were unnamed and delineated only by the letters of the alphabet. In June 1866, a city ordinance was approved to name "A" as "A Street," to be followed by "B Street," "C Street," and so forth to the north as they had been laid out by Couch. This first plat was extended to L, M, N, and O Streets in 1869. The area came to be known as the "Alphabet District" for its unusual street naming system and remained so from 1865 to 1891 until the streets were assigned their present names.
Captain John Heard Couch, patriarchal founder of the Alphabet Historic District, died just before his 59th birthday. He was diagnosed with "typhoid pneumonia" and passed away on January 19, 1870. His death was mourned citywide: "The funeral cortege was never excelled in Portland ... The banks closed, all business was stopped, labor suspended, and all combined to pay respect and honor."
The family lineage did not end with Couch's passing. He lived to see three of his daughters married and was survived at his death by not only a wife and four daughters but also 15 grandchildren. In 1854, Caroline Couch, his oldest daughter, married Dr. Robert Bruce Wilson from Virginia. In 1857, Clementine Couch wed Cicero Hunt Lewis, a prominent and wealthy merchant from New Jersey. In 1863, Elizabeth Couch married Dr. Rodney Glisan from Maryland. Most members of this extensive clan later settled the land originally claimed by Captain Couch, helping to establish a neighborhood for the elite of Portland's pioneers.
While 1870 was significant for Couch's passing, it also heralded the introduction of important local institutions. Bishop Scott Grammar and Divinity School was one such institution. It was constructed to replace the Trinity Boys School that had operated in the neighboring town of Oswego from 1856 to 1866. The Trinity Boys School had led a precarious existence, with numerous closures during its history. With the arrival of Bishop E. Wistar Morris, a new location was sought for the private school. He decided upon the City of Portland, where the Portland Episcopal Church and its congregation could help raise funding. The Couch and Flanders families promptly donated a two-block site west of the intersection of 19th and E Streets.
Bishop Morris continued to spearhead the founding of the new school, which he renamed in honor of Bishop Thomas Fielding Scott. Scott had been the director of the original Trinity Boys School. His namesake was established to train young men for the ministry and good citizenship. The Bishop Scott Grammar and Divinity School was described as being "away out in the woods in the western part of the city." Apparently, its siting caused some concern, as "it required great faith in the development of the country and the town to establish a school at that time and place." To ensure future development, the Couch family continued to plat their Donation Land Claim (DLC). In 1872, Caroline Couch, the family matriarch, extended the platted area to P, Q, and R Streets. Subsequent plats continued the alphabet to W Street. These later plats, concentrated at the western end of the Couch DLC, differed distinctly from the earlier plats. The earlier plats had been subdivided into the standard 200 x 200-foot blocks that characterized downtown Portland, while the later plats were subdivided into 200 (north-south) x 480 (east-west) foot blocks. This larger gridding system established the standard for the future subdivisions of the King and Balch DLCs that bordered the Couch DLC to the north and west. More importantly, these land divisions and plats provided additional incentives for the siting of public institutions that required relatively large tracts of land in a pleasant environment. In 1874, Bishop Morris again coordinated the siting of another important public institution in northwest Portland. He organized a board of leading citizens to determine the location of a public hospital. The hospital purchased land at 21st and L Streets from one of its board members, Rodney Glisan. The hospital grounds were extended to 23rd Street with an additional purchase from George Flanders. Good Samaritan Hospital opened in October 1875, with the location described as a "high and healthful situation." It complemented St. Vincent's Hospital, which had opened a few months earlier in July. St. Vincent's was located closer to town on 12th between M and N Streets but was still considered to be in the continuous "North Portland" district that stretched as far west as Good Samaritan. Both hospitals were among the first institutions to locate away from the core area of town. The hospital's original staff listed Curtis C. Strong, Rodney Glisan, and Robert Wilson. Glisan and Wilson were both sons-in-law of Captain Couch, while Flanders was his brother-in-law. It should be noted that the hospital was located on land bought from both Glisan and Flanders. It was evident even at that early date that the Couch clan would be instrumental in shaping the future of northwest Portland. Residential Development The residential development of northwest Portland began to take form as the city's economy gathered steam in the late 1870s and early 1880s in anticipation of the burgeoning railroad industry. Demand for lumber and fuel cleared the old-growth forest in the western reaches of the Alphabet District, which, in turn, encouraged the establishment of businesses such as breweries and dairies in that area. Meanwhile, large houses with spacious grounds were constructed on the large 200 x 480-foot blocks that Caroline Couch and George Flanders had platted west of 19th Street. These homes clustered between 19th and 21st Streets from B Street north to L—basically, the district defined by the two Episcopalean institutions of Bishop Scott School and Good Samaritan Hospital. A residential enclave was also developing east of 16th Street.
However, this residential district was markedly different from that west of 19th Street in that it catered to middle-class and working-class families. These homes consisted of modest vernacular "cottages" located on small to mid-size lots. The character of northwest Portland was clearly heterogeneous during this time. On the west, it was characterized by an industrial suburb, while a middle class neighborhood developed to the east. Growth of either neighborhood threatened to overwhelm the elite community located in between. That threat was answered in 1881.
In 1881, George W. Weidler, owner of Portland's largest and most profitable steam sawmill, built a home at 19th and L Streets. Weidler's home overlooked his mill and was constructed at the tune of $16,000—no mean sum at the time. That same year, J. C. Carson built an Italianate style home at 20th and J Streets for $10,000. Carson managed a sash and door business in association with Weidler's mill. Not to be outdone, C. P. Bacon, Weidler's father-in-law, also built an Italianate residence located between 18th, 19th, J, and I Streets. Evidently, business owners with interests along the northwest waterfront had decided that the large blocks and fresh air should belong to them rather than to the workers whose homes had begun to creep uphill from the riverfront industrial district.
Members of the Couch clan also began developing the series of blocks between 19th and 20th Streets that they had inherited from John H. Couch. The first of the fold to return were Clementine and Cicero H. Lewis, Couch's daughter and son-in-law. Lewis was one of the richest men in Portland. He invested $35,000 in a Stick style mansion between G and H Streets. His relative, George Flanders, followed suit in 1883 and spent $40,000 on a home between F and G Streets. By 1885, two of Couch's daughters and their families had similarly relocated. Caroline and Robert Wilson resided between H and I Streets, while Elizabeth and Rodney Glisan occupied a home at I and J Streets. Those wishing to claim a certain social standing soon coveted an address in the vicinity of 19th Street.
While residents of the Alphabet District sought to maintain its exclusive reputation, they were also interested in sustaining the middle-class neighborhood east of 17th Street for land speculation. In 1884, the Couch family developed row houses on the block between I, J, 17th , and 18th Streets. These narrow frame houses [extant] built in the Queen Anne style were near enough to allow the Couchs' to keep a close eye on their investments.
The Couch family followed a precedent established by George H. Williams the year before. In 1883, Williams, a former senator and U.S. Attorney General, built his home on the block between 19th and D Streets. He simultaneously constructed a three-unit townhouse [extant] on the same block. Williams intended to maintain this townhouse as income property.
The Couch and Williams' townhouses were well received by the housing market. They gave confidence to other investors interested in similar business ventures. In 1890, Herman Trenkmann, a contractor, constructed eight identical frame houses [extant] in the Queen Anne / Eastlake style at NW 17th and Hoyt Streets. He intended them for middle-class housing. That same year, Williams converted his townhouse into a first-class boarding house. In 1893, David Campbell built six brick row houses [extant] on the same block as the Couch family investment properties. The success of the Couch, Williams, Trenkmann, and Campbell properties later encouraged similar development in the northwest area.
Residential development in the northwest area was further spurred by the introduction of new streetcar lines in the early 1880s. In 1882, the Transcontinental Street Railway Company started a line that ran tracks on G Street to 22nd, on 14th, and on S Street to 26th . The company also built car barns on S Street at 24th Street.
A second streetcar system was introduced the following year. In June 1882, E. A. Jeffrey was awarded a franchise for the Multnomah Street Railway Company. With financial backing from George Weidler and W. A. Scoggin, the Multnomah Street Railway Company began streetcar service in 1883. Horse-drawn streetcars began service on Washington and B Streets, and by December of that year, had reached 23rd and B streets. Another line opened earlier in July. That line traveled north from B Street along 16th Street. The competing Transcontinental Street Railway Company established east-west service on G Street at the same time. By 1891, when the Multnomah Street Railway Company completed a line on 23rd Street, a network of streetcars served the subdivisions located on either side of Burnside. As a result, the northwest area's appeal as a residential district was further elevated. The area was not only a stone's throw from the central business district, it also offered a transit option besides walking. In those days, streetcars helped commuters avoid the long, muddy walk to and from work that was unavoidable if one did not own a horse.
The streetcar lines must have been particularly appealing to medical professionals who were beginning to populate northwest Portland in the late 1870s and 1880s. In 1885, the Medical College of Willamette University, which had relocated to Portland in 1878, constructed a new building at 15th and C Streets. Located midway between two major hospitals, the Medical College building invited the establishment of various medical agencies. Medical offices and convalescent centers began to proliferate in northwest Portland, as did physicians' homes.
Doctors were not the only residents of the Alphabet District. "Merchant princes" and non-medical professionals also made their homes there, tending to congregate along the strip of 19l Avenue. That particular corridor came to be known as "Nob Hill," a likely imitation of San Francisco's Nabob or Nob Hill, itself derived from the Nabobs of the Mogul rule in India. It would seem the case; one grocer claimed to have named the avenue for its similarity to the Nob Hill area of his native San Francisco.
Though western in name, the Nob Hill area was eastern in character. Many of its residents hailed from New England. As such, the neighborhood strove to create an aura of New England culture and level of sophistication. It was, at times, referred to as "the Boston of the west." In any case, the neighborhood's character was distinctly defined. The Great Renaming of 1891 bore that out.
In 1891, the three separate cities of Portland, Albina, and East Portland were consolidated to form the Portland we know today. Consolidation produced a single city with duplicate street names that failed to replicate each other in location. For example, there may have been ten "A Streets," each of which were located in three different sections of the city. Mayor W. S. Mason appointed a "Streets Committee" to study the dilemma. The "Streets Committee" produced a list of citizens they believed were worthy of commemoration. Nearly one-third of the Alphabet District was named for citizens who either lived in the area or who owned businesses there. Clearly, the Alphabet District housed important local businessmen and pioneers whose contributions would be recognized in posterity. On January 12, 1892, the city of Portland passed an ordinance that replaced the letters with corresponding names of pioneers and deserving citizens. With the renaming, the Alphabet District was no more. Instead, the area was newly christened the "West End," with Nob Hill retaining its sobriquet. Fortunately, the district lost none of its appeal during the transition.
In time, the West End encompassed as many as 60 mansions, a number of which occupied full city blocks. Perhaps the most impressive of the lot was a huge house constructed by Richard B. Knapp, a partner in an implement and machinery company. Knapp invested $80,000 in his residence, though some rumors placed the figure closer to $100,000. The cost alone placed the home in a singular category. The Knapp residence was, unsurprisingly, also noteworthy for its ostentatious architecture. It sported exotic woods, rare stained glass, and hand-wrought hardware. Knapp's house dominated the block between 17th , 18th , Davis, and Everett Streets; but despite the attention it commanded, it should be remembered that the Knapp residence kept company with similar homes.
† Michael Harrison, Cielo Lutino, Liza Mickle, Peter Mye, Bill Cunningham, Stephanie Gauthier, City of Portland Bureau of Planning, Alphabet Historic District, Portland, Multnomah County, OR, nomination document, 2000, National Park Service, National Register of Historic Places, Washington, D.C.